Women Sex Trafficking in Iraq

By Rusul Hamed Muhammed:

The abuses of Daesh, especially against Yazidi women and girls, have gained world attention. But the overall problem in Iraq pre-dates Daesh and has grown especially since 2003, as Rusul’s paper explains.

Women sex trafficking is a very important and broad topic that concerns all cultures around the world. Iraq, as a country that has gone through wars, economic crises and conflicts, is not absent from the list of the countries experiencing woman sex trafficking as a major issue. After the 2003 war, this phenomenon expanded to involve huge numbers inside the country because of economic crisis, political instability and maybe unnecessary freedom. We must not forget about the subordinate role of women in Iraqi culture and the inequality that further makes them servile to men, and subject to use as tools of sex for both personal pleasure and even worse, for business.

I have focused my research on this phenomenon within Iraqi borders; and on how the economic crisis and the war have caused women in Iraq to become tools for trafficking and sex trade. After 2003, women sex trafficking became a big problem because there was institutional disorder and corruption in the country that meant lower barriers and less punishment for these crimes. Women were struggling with poverty in the absence of their men who would normally maintain the families based on traditions. Women were vulnerable to be deceived to leave Iraq seeking job opportunities to enhance their economic situation. Hence many of them became sex trafficking victims who work in neighboring countries in hotels, homes and nightclubs or brothels as sex tools. They cannot come back to Iraq because of traditional honor issues. Others went abroad voluntarily, but they did not tell their stories for fear of being ostracized by their communities. My question here is: how have wars and economic crises led these Iraqi women to become sex trafficking tools for the brokers? What was the motive behind this? How should the Iraqi government deal with such a big issue? We will take a closer look at some of the realities of the phenomenon.

According to my personal interview with a feminist activist working in an Iraqi NGO, who preferred to remain anonymous, there are several reasons behind women trafficking in Iraq, including economic exploitation for profit, sexual exploitation (hustle and entertainment), and miserable poverty exploitation (sending the Iraqi women to the Gulf countries and promising them jobs, then forcing them to work as prostitutes in brothels or hotels for the same reason which is making profit). According to the Trafficking in Prison report, “Iraqi women, some of them below 11 years old have experienced women trafficking for sex exploitation inside Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gordon, Kuwait, UAE, Turkey, Iran and even Yemen”. “And, in some cases, they deceive the women about providing jobs opportunities.” (Yassin, Nadim) Moreover, during my interview with staff at an international NGO in Kurdistan, they assured me that Iraqi women from Baghdad and Kirkuk, places with high population densities and high poverty, are being trafficked from Iraq to Kuwait and then being sold there for $5000 per woman. “It is very difficult to estimate or give an accurate data because this phenomenon has hugely expanded throughout the world and its victims are afraid to talk about it, and 50% of these victims who had told of their cases were killed by their families for dishonor concerns.” (Personal interview with Iraqi international NGO).

“According to an interview with Dr. Sundus Abaas, women trafficking is not a result of today, but is the outcome of wars and conflicts, wrong policies and the subsequent sanctions and occupation.” (Yassin, Nadim). “It must be said that prostitution is a profitable trade that spreads particularly in the periods of the wars, civil strife and deteriorating economic conditions”, (Zangana, Haifa). According to a conversation between Sinan Intwan and the feminist activist Yanar Muhammed, who is the leader of the Organization of Women Freedom in Iraq, the US occupation in 2003 paved the way for women trafficking. The US occupation caused a paralysis of the Iraqi economy and in individual Iraqis’ incomes and millions were left with no money during the first years of the occupation. This pushed Iraqi women to pursue other taboo ways to make money to survive (Muhammed, Yanar). Furthermore, Muhammed said that many of the huge number of more than 2 million widows and war orphans girls found themselves turned into sex commodities to entertain the traffickers and militias that emerged during the war. Poverty in Iraq drove women into prostitution because it became almost the only way to get income and survive without hunger. Also, with the absence of any protection for Iraqi women, they became the most vulnerable victims of war and poverty. Muhammed argues that history repeats itself. Back in the dark ages, women were used either as one of the fourth wives, for reproducing children, or as tools for sex and entertainment purposes. The bourgeoisie class exploited women for sex for several days, not even taking care of what would happen to the victims afterwards. The same thing is happening now; poverty has made trafficking of women a source of income which usually causes harm to the woman victims while the traffickers get money from the bourgeoisie. Poverty and war have made Iraqi women victims of trafficking because of the preceding cultural ideas and regulations that encouraged the enslavement of women and reduced their worth, thus using them for different purposes (Muhammed, Yanar).

According to one of my interviews with an Iraqi NGO, which refuses to give its name for privacy reasons, after the war the trafficking in sex slaves kept increasing under the pretext of providing job opportunities. They told me that, according to the Organization of Women Freedom, 15% of Iraqi women who lost their husbands in the war are searching for temporary marriages or working in prostitution in order to have a secure source of income. Moreover, this NGO has claimed that 4000 Iraqi women have disappeared since the 2003 war, many of them below the age of 18. The NGO estimates that more than 50% of these women have been trafficked between the neighboring countries such as Syria, Lebonon, Kwait, etc. It adds that, after the 2003 war, there was also voluntary trafficking, which many women accepted as a way to improve their financial situation because of their miserable, impoverished existence; however, they did this in secret and did not talk about it because these women are afraid of being punished by their society for their shameful jobs.

During my studies, I found that the same trafficking procedures as happen around the world, such as kidnapping and deception, are also happening with Iraqi women. Many ways are used to traffic Iraqi women. Sometimes the brokers kidnap the victims and force them into prostitution. Besides this, there is also temporary marriage, known as Al Mut’a, which is another type of sexual exploitation. Al Muta’a marriage is a kind of Islamic Shia sanctioned marriage that lasts for several days, or a year or two. According to the Zangana report on Iraqi women trafficking, after the women get trapped in Al Muta’a marriages and accept this to enhance their finance conditions, many are taken to another country and sold to other women traders for money, and this continues for as long as their price keeps rising. The price varies and depends on the neighboring and gulf countries’ demand for women and how much they will pay in return, and also on how easy it is to get cooperation from police and border guards who often charge $2000 to $3000 per woman ( Zangana, Haifa). Moreover, many young girls in Iraq are struggling with forced marriages because of their parents. The tradition of parents taking charge of their daughter’s future gives them the control to sell their girls in order to get good dowries to aid the family financially (UN Report). An example from the Inas Tariq report says that Mariam, a 16 years old, became a victim of an al Muta’a marriage to a very old man so as to get her father released from his debt in two years. Also, the UN report has warned that the phenomenon of temporary marriage in Iraq has exploited many Iraqi women because when they get married they travel with their legal temporal husband to Syria and then these women become victims of trafficking in Syria.

During my interview with the lawyer chancellor Rozh Al- Atraqch who works in the Al- Masalla Organization in Kurdistan, she illustrated that women trafficking is a very big international and regional issue. However, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) does not have a special or fixed law against women trafficking which leads to corruption and the further spread of this phenomenon. She also argued that she has been working on cases of women trafficking in Iraq and Kurdistan since December 2015, and this job is not easy because it is very secretive and confidential so the chances are very low of finding women willing to come forward with their cases. Al-Atraqchi said that she has 13 cases of woman sex trade and trafficking in Kurdistan, and she is willing to investigate more. She added that this project is new and not very big in the Al-Masalla organization which means that many more cases could be found in the region if the victims choose to talk about this awful crime. Al-Atraqchi provided details of several cases which she thinks are the most important. The available details are as follows:

Case 1

The first case is about a girl victim from Kurdistan who met the lawyer Al-Atraqchi while she was in jail. The underage 16 years old girl had been exploited by her family who got her married at the age of 10. Then she got divorced after two years because her husband took her outside Iraq to make her a subject for sex trafficking. The girl was able to get divorced and come back to her family, but she ran away because her family treated her really badly. She was very young and ignorant, and she did not fully understand what was happening to her, and so she fell into other crimes arranged by her other female ‘friends’. These girls deceived her by saying they would give her safety but instead they took her to a brothel where she became a victim of sex exploitation by more than one man and was also filmed. One day she was going on a ‘date’ with a man and so she could scream to get help from security officials in the street. That’s how she ended up to the jail, Al- Atraqchi said. The girl is now freed from jail, but the case is still open because the girl is still underage.

Case 2

A girl from southern Iraq who is 18 years old said she had been exploited for sex from childhood because of the financial situation of her family. The girl was trafficked from the south to the north of Iraq. Her father had sold her when she was very young to a man to be used as a sex tool in different houses in order to get money for the family.

Al- Atraqchi said that, “The problem is that we cannot know where the victim is until she comes and tells us, or the police get involved one way or another to take the necessary actions. Only then can our work begin to protect the victim in jail and help her to get released from it”. She added that these girls need protection by the government, but there is no law to assist them.

Case 3

A girl who works in Kurdistan was the victim of an Al- Muta’a marriage with a Kurdish man for year. The girl lives in Iran but works in Kurdistan, and so the man had exploited her because she was far from her home. She was promised she’d get a legal marriage when she went back to Iran, but this did not happened. The man had exploited her, having sex with her every day and telling her that “you are my legal wife”, but when she went back to Iran the man denied that they’d had an Al-Muta’a marriage and did not acknowledge her as his wife. The girl had lost her virginity and now she is living in stigma, and the man ran away but there is no law to punish him because the government does not have any regulation against this and instead consider it all as the girl’s fault.

Case 4

A girl who is 18 years old became a tool for the sex trade because she was deceived by a man who told her that he loved her. The man kidnapped her from Kurdistan and took her on an unknown route leading to Iran. On the way the girl was raped by more than one man. Al-Atraqchi said that this case is very sad because the girl really does not have full awareness of her worth because she comes from a very ignorant and poor family. Al-Atraqchi has doubts about sincerity of the girl’s father and said it is possible that he sold her since he has waived the opportunity to pursue a case and receive a sum of money.

In conclusion, Iraq has experienced a terrifying increase in sex trafficking over the last decade. Although many international NGOs, local NGOs, and governmental institutions are working on the issue, the challenge is that the topic is so sensitive that it becomes almost impossible to reach most of the victims, and thus more impossible to prevent the phenomenon. Many Iraqi women became victims of poverty, their families and the absence of functional laws that punish these crimes appropriately without victimizing women. We live in a culture that tends to put more blame on women who have such experiences without looking at the case objectively to judge who is actually the victim and who the criminal. With this mindset, the problem will continue and society in general and women in particular will suffer even more. Women sex trafficking has become a serious phenomenon in Iraq that gets even worse with the continuation of conflict and economic crisis in the country thus the estimated data has reached many thousands (Free Iraq Broadcast). Different countries play different roles in this business. Some countries are exporters, while others are importers or passage stations of trafficked women. Iraq is classified as a women exporter for the neighboring countries (Free Iraq Broadcast).

Working to raise community awareness of the problem of underage marriages and providing genuine local job opportunities are two ways to begin to eradicate this dreadful phenomenon.


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  • Yaseen, Nadim. “تقرير أميركي عن تنامي ظاهرة الاتجار بالبشر في دول منها العراق.” إذاعة العراق الحر. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 April 2016.
  • Zangana, Hifa. “العراق بين السلم والحروب.” صوت اليسار العراقي. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 April 2016.
  • Al-Atraqchi, Rozh.”Case Studies about Women Sex Trafficking in Iraq.” Telephone interview. 23 Apr. 2016.
  • Alwazan, Samleem. “زواج المتعة: حساسيات طائفية تمنع من تناوله إعلامياً.” N.p., 29 July2008. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.

Rusul Hamed Muhammed is a senior student majoring in International Studies at the American University of Iraq – Sulymania.

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